Overcoming Resentment During Your Recovery


Today’s topic will be resentment: harboring it and then proceeding to vanquish it.

I want to start off with a story of my ex-girlfriend, whom we’ll call Debbie.  Debbie was a medium-height brunette with a great sense of humor and quite a lot of attitude.  I kind of liked the attitude, but only when I was in a good mood.  She was my girlfriend while I was drinking heavily, and my girlfriend when I hit rock bottom.  She was a girlfriend who left me a few times and we got back together, and finally split up for good.

Something interesting happened somewhere in there.  Relationships that alcoholics have can be quite  interesting and quite dysfunctional.  They can have very bizarre undercurrents.  One of the things that happened in Debbie and my relationship is that she cheated on me…in a very bizarre way.  There was a guy named Grogan who she somehow met through her job.  I met the guy once or twice…at bars.  It’s all a little fuzzy.  Anyway, Debbie did something funny, which was to talk about Grogan an awful lot.  She would talk to me about their lunches during the work day when he’d go from wherever he worked to the courtyard outside where she worked where there was some canteen or food truck or whatever and they’d lunch.  I’d overhear her talking to him on the phone sometime.  That at one point—now, I’m of course not proud of this—I read a bunch of her e-mails.

What I found was this strange kind of cheating I was referring to.  Whether or not they ever slept together I’m not sure.  But they achieved an emotional intimacy.  They had little catch phrases and inside jokes and all that.  She’d tell him about stupid b.s. I did.  There’s no question that he was filling in for me, giving her all sorts of emotional things her boyfriend should’ve been giving her but wasn’t.

And I was not happy.  I unleashed quite a wrath on her in the form of screaming, throwing it in her face—including in front of her friends—not letting it go, insulting and criticizing her about other things.

I acted poorly toward her, but as time when on, whether I realized that or not, that wasn’t my main takeaway.  Instead, what I focused on was her and what had happened.  I learned something very important about resentment.  It’s not something we choose.  It chooses us.  It’s not something we cultivate.  It cultivates us.  Resentment worms its way deep inside of us and keeps popping up at the oddest of times, perhaps when we’re most vulnerable.

After I got clean and sober, the idea of them would come back to me from time to time.  It would come back to me in the shower, at work, and even during my jogs, which ultimately ended up being a linchpin of my sobriety.  They tended to come up with changes in metabolism, such as when I’d eaten or was tired or too caffeinated, waking from naps, etc.  It was a strange feeling, an imaginary fight with her or with him, grappling with things that were absolutely over.  I’d gone through so much effort to forgive everyone everything and was making so many strides emotionally.  Why was I clinging on to this thing?

I knew it had to do with inadequacies, that I didn’t have anyone in my life at the time who was a Debbie to my Grogan.  The guy really had it over me for charm and sensitivity and humor and being able to really bond like that.  I was dating here and there, but a lot of the two, three date things I’d have were kind of disastrous.  This wasn’t because of where I was in my recovery or anything like that—though my emotional baggage didn’t help any—just fluke things.  But I wasn’t really bonding with anyone.

There was that one thing that was really nagging me, that I really resented.  I didn’t give the matter much thought for a long time.  But I came to realize that at other times I’d resent trivial things.  I kind of felt that the resentment mechanism was at work and that it needed to be nipped.  Feelings of resentment toward Debbie, or toward anyone else I’d resent due to similarly insecurity, wasn’t going to drive me to drink, I didn’t think.  But it was a kind of bag on my hip.  It’s not the kind of thing you want—I kind of wanted to vanquish it just to have a victory, to feel more whole as a recovered alcoholic.

The website says that resentment encompasses all of the following: “ill will, grudge holding, un-forgiveness, spite, indignation, bitterness, grievance, and hostility.”  I’d say of those I most experience grudge holding, indignation, bitterness, and hostility.

What is bitterness exactly?  What does it mean to be bitter?  It’s an amazing word to use for human behavior or emotions, since it’s one of the major flavors.  It has to do with being unpleasant, characterized by off-putting or repellant sensations.  I did my damndest to not come across that way, but I did have bitterness.  I had bitterness toward Debbie for a few things.  I had bitterness toward my loneliness and toward the struggle I was having with staying sober.  This was not resentment per se—that is, I didn’t resent these things, I was just bitter about them.  You see?  One component of resentment.  It was that component—bitterness, that helped open the door to full-on resentment.

Also, hostility.  What is hostility?  Every time someone talks about hostility they say “hostile toward” or “hostile to.”  That’s a good way of putting it.  I look at hostile as being resistant, but to a large degree.  So, it’s a matter of being resistant to something in the world.  Like, something was holding me back from just saying that Debbie’s closeness with Grogan only made sense and she wasn’t trying to hurt me, necessarily.  Or if she was, I deserved it.  If you’re bitter and hostile, it’s not easy to give up resentment.  And I’d say the bitterness and hostility tended to be holdovers from my attitude that drove me to drink in the first place.

How to Overcome Resentment

As you may know, AA has it Big Book, which serves as an almanac for recovery.  Resentment is common enough among heavy drinkers that it is addressed in the AA BB quite thoroughly.  It recommends a few things:

  • recognize your role in the resentment
  • write about your resentment
  • destroy those you resent and dance on their ashes
  • be willing to live without resentment

Now that second-to-last one was there to see if you’d read this far.  Thank you for reading this far.  Of the above, I suppose I did all but the destroying, but I’d like to focus on writing about my resentment and living without resentment.

Write about Resentment

I wrote about the problems I had and the emotions I had, and it convinced me in short order I was being ridiculous.  Try a variation.  Write as though you’re writing a piece of fiction—a story—and talk in third person.  Make yourself a character—Jane did this, Marco thought that, etc.  This will give you the distance you need, seeing yourself from the outside.  Just the use of the pronoun he or she (as well as using your name) will really help you—it’ll open up a new line of vision.

Writing about it was one of the things that helped me the most.  Feeling kind of dumb about thinking a certain way, finding one’s feelings to be irrational, is a powerful force, one that will cause positive change.

Living Without Resentment

Man, is this a big one.  Is it possible to be addicted to resentment?  Is it a sort of emotional crutch the way the booze had been, and the way that self-pity can be?  I think so.  There’s the indignation I mentioned above, a chance to feel you’ve been wronged and have this give you some moral superiority as a victim.  But is it ultimately better to live without it?  Naturally.  That’s because doing so gives you a better kind of superiority, a well-earned satisfaction that isn’t superiority in the usual negative sense.  It’s a feeling of having let go and having given a type of forgiveness.  it’s the kind of thing that would make anyone proud of himself.

It involves treating resentment like something that has to be kicked—make your resolution, tell yourself you’re going to kick it, and go through a process.  The process of staying healthy as a recovered alcoholic involves many smaller processes.  There are many things that you have to get in order concerning your emotional life that all work together, all of which have to be somewhat strong for you to stay sober, both physically and emotional.

Photo Credit Rakesh Rocky on Flickr